30 Questions Answered About Caterpillars With Cordyceps

Cordyceps are fascinating fungi. From how they take over caterpillars and other insects to their numerous health benefits and hefty price tag. It’s no surprise you’re curious about them.

To help bring clarity between the myth and the science behind this strange but helpful parasitic mushroom we’ve answered 30 questions on caterpillars with Cordyceps (a.k.a. Cordyceps sinensis). As you go through our list, you’ll learn:

  • Why caterpillar Cordyceps are so expensive
  • Their various health benefits
  • Why they’re also called the “Himalayan Viagra”
  • How to spot a genuine Cordyceps product

The stalk-like, dark brown, fruiting body of Cordyceps (stroma), which grows out of a caterpillar head, is edible along with the non-fruiting body (sclerotium).

caterpillars with Cordyceps anatomy diagram
The stalk-like, dark brown, fruiting body of Cordyceps (stroma), which grows out of a caterpillar head, is edible along with the non-fruiting body (sclerotium).

Cordyceps sinensis are a well-known herbal remedy in East Asia. They’re loaded with beneficial bioactive compounds such as cordycepin and adenosine.

The ground-dwelling caterpillars of ghost moths are prone to infection by Cordyceps sinensis.

These caterpillars mostly dwell just below the ground surface of shrublands and alpine grasslands; perfect environments for the fruiting Cordyceps fungus.

Most ghost moth caterpillars populate the shrublands and grasslands of the Tibetan plateau and Himalayas at an altitude of between 9,800 and 16,400 feet.

More specifically, these caterpillars are found in the mountainous regions of:

  • China
  • Tibet
  • Nepal
  • Bhutan
Expensive caterpillar with cordyceps
Caterpillar Cordyceps are so expensive because they are in high demand but are notoriously hard to find in the wild. No one has been able to figure out how to cultivate them.

Cordyceps sinensis (a.k.a caterpillars with Cordyceps) are expensive because they’re notoriously hard to find and have high demand.

Their hard-to-find status is because they sprout only a few weeks a year — in the spring — which isn’t enough time to satisfy year-round, global demand. And, unlike other types of Cordyceps mushrooms which can grow out of a variety of insects, Cordyceps sinensis grows from only a single species of moth: the ghost moth.

Additionally, the natural habitat of these caterpillars — grasslands — keeps them hidden like needles in a haystack. Since no one has yet been able to figure out how to cultivate this kind of Cordyceps, they remain rare.

Ophiocordyceps sinensis is commonly referred to as the caterpillar fungus. It is an entomopathogenic fungus (a parasite of insects) that often infects the caterpillar of ghost moths.

It’s the wild Cordyceps species with a long history in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the inspiration behind modern cultivated Cordyceps alternatives.

The relationship between caterpillars and Cordyceps fungus is purely parasitic and propagating to the fungus.

  • Fungal spores invade and germinate inside the ghost moth caterpillar host, eventually killing it.
  • A fruiting stalk (mushroom) then sprouts from the dead caterpillar’s head and emerges from the soil.
  • Spores from the newly-sprouted mushroom spread via wind to more caterpillars.
Ghost moth caterpillar - cordyceps sinensis
When Cordyceps fungal spores invade a ghost moth’s body, they eventually take over and “mummify” the larval host. When conditions are right, the spores will sprout a mushroom out of the caterpillar’s head.

Cordyceps sinensis (a.k.a. caterpillar Cordyceps) may support your body in the following ways:

Cordyceps sinensis
Cordyceps sinensis mushrooms look just like the caterpillars they grow from, with an additional mushroom “stalk” (a.k.a. stroma) growing out of its head.

Caterpillars with Cordyceps (a.k.a. Cordyceps sinensis) are bright yellow when harvested with longitudinal ridges across their sclerotium (the non-fruiting body) with a thin blade-like mushroom protruding from its head.

The Cordyceps mushrooms are longer than the caterpillar’s body and dark brown when harvested but eventually darken when dry.

Harvesting Cordyceps sinensis is a communal practice that involves manually searching through large tracts of alpine grasslands for the protruding mushrooms popping out of the ground.

The practice is generally low-tech and occurs in the spring when the fungus emerges from the soil ready to infect more caterpillars.

Processing caterpillar Cordyceps involves the following methods:

  • Dried, whole caterpillars with Cordyceps are soaked in alcohol solvents to make tinctures and extracts.
  • Stalks of caterpillar Cordyceps are extracted, dried, and ground. The powdered stalks are then blended into smoothies or brewed into teas and soups.

Caterpillars with Cordyceps (a.k.a. Cordyceps sinensis) have no psychedelic properties. They are adaptogenic, meaning they support your body’s resistance to stressors and promote normal physiological functioning.

For instance, they can help your body with oxidative stress, while promoting a healthy response to inflammation.

Caption: searching for the Himalayan viagra

In Traditional Chinese Medicine and much of the Himalayas region, Cordyceps sinensis mushrooms have long been used as natural aphrodisiacs for men and women, hence the name “Himalayan viagra”.

This practice persists to date supported by scientific studies. For instance, one study found caterpillars with Cordyceps to enhance libido by 66% (1).

Warming winters and declining snowfall are greatly impacting the population of the caterpillar mushroom (a.k.a. Cordyceps sinensis). Recently, China reported a drastic decline in yields due to global warming.

Meanwhile, across the Himalayas, a major source of the world’s caterpillar fungus, a 20%–40% reduction in snowfall is predicted. This will likely exacerbate the already dwindling numbers of caterpillar Cordyceps.

There are a variety of important nutritional components in Cordyceps sinensis (Hyun 2008; Yang et al. 2009, 2010; Li et al. 2011), including:

  • Essential amino acids
  • Vitamins such as B1, B2, B12, and K
  • Carbohydrates such as monosaccharides, oligosaccharides
  • Vital polysaccharides, sterols, nucleosides, proteins, and other trace elements

Cordyceps sinensis, the true caterpillar fungus, cannot be grown without the caterpillars. After many decades of trying to cultivate Cordyceps sinensis in China, only recently has this been accomplished by initially farming the ghost moth and then infecting it with Cordyceps sinensis mycelium.

Cordyceps militaris on the other hand, can be cultivated on conventional mushroom substrates without the need for its’ native insect host.

  • Growers introduce Cordyceps militaris mycelium into cultivation jars filled with rice or grain substrates.
  • The mycelium, the fungal root-like structure, colonizes the substrate, which later grows into Cordyceps mushrooms.

Caterpillar Cordyceps develop their fruiting body annually, in the spring. The following table highlights this process throughout the year.

Cordyceps growth stages
The stages of Cordyceps growth across the year.

The mushroom (fruiting body) of Cordyceps sinensis, which sprouts from the head of dead caterpillars, contains many biologically active compounds, for instance:

The biocompounds present in Cordyceps sinensis and their benefits for the body. The Source: PubMed

Out of these, beta-glucans and cordycepin are the primary active compounds and the most studied, with a wide range of biological activity.

Ghost moth caterpillars themselves are not endangered. However, the Cordyceps sinensis fungi that infect and grow out of the corpses of ghost moth caterpillars is an endangered species and highly restricted.

Their endangered status is down to their overexploitation for use in traditional medicines, as well as an ever-changing climate in the wild harvesting regions.

While ghost moth caterpillars are prone to infection by Cordyceps sinenis, they aren’t the only victims.

Other species of Cordyceps also parasitizes the insect orders Hymenoptera, Hemiptera, and Coleoptera. The following table highlights the various features of these insect orders.

Orders of insects that can become infected with various species of Cordyceps spores.

Caterpillars infected with Cordyceps contain carotenoids, which are responsible for their intense yellow-orange color.

Carotenoids are light-harvesting pigments produced by plants, algae, and fungi that double as antioxidants in humans. These pigments extend the spectral range over which photosynthesis can occur.

Carotenoids are also present in:

  • Carrots
  • Pumpkins
  • Parsnips
  • Corn
Cordyceps supplements by Real Mushrooms
Cordyceps supplements by Real Mushrooms use the militaris species of Cordyceps instead of sinensis. Why? Because the sinensis species is controversial on many levels and cannot be cultivated at scale. Luckily, Cordyceps militaris boasts even higher concentrations of the health-supporting compound, Cordycepin, than the caterpillar Cordyceps.

Commercially-available Cordyceps supplements are generally made exclusively from the cultivated Cordyceps of the species militaris. There are three reasons for this:

  1. Cordyceps militaris contains higher concentrations of the key health-supporting compound cordycepin.
  2. Cordyceps militaris can be cultivated at commercial scale and for affordable prices compared to the caterpillar Cordyceps (sinensis).
  3. Cultivation of Cordyceps militaris also does not require any insects.

However, some commercial Cordyceps militaris supplements contain only the fungal mycelium, and not the mushroom. To receive adequate concentrations of the health-supporting compounds from Cordyceps, it is important that the supplement contains the actual mushroom.

Here’s one such supplement by Real Mushrooms that only features the mushroom of cultivated Cordyceps militaris. No added starch, mycelium, or grain of any kind ensures high amounts of bioactive compounds for maximum health benefits.

“These supplements helped me with cognitive and physical benefits. They are not mixed with fillers and have no weird taste.” My Linh

Considering their endangered status, harvesting and trading of caterpillars with Cordyceps is highly restricted and outright banned in some countries such as India. Recently, India’s state of Sikkim acquired sniffer dogs to help enforce the ban.

These measures are in place to preserve the population of caterpillars with Cordyceps in the wild and prevent potential turf-related conflicts in countries such as Nepal.

The most crucial stage of development for the caterpillar Cordyceps is when the fungus infects the ghost moth larva to form mycelium, which finally becomes the sclerotium; the mycelium-colonized insect.

Until now, there’s limited knowledge about this process, which is why it’s difficult to artificially infect a caterpillar with substrate-grown Cordyceps (2).

Ghost moth - Cordyceps
Infecting the caterpillar of the ghost moth with Cordyceps spores is the only way that the highly revered Cordyceps sinensis mushroom can be produced.

The Cordyceps fungi that infect caterpillars are most productive under cold conditions and grow in areas with permafrost; a thick layer of soil that remains frozen throughout the year.

Such areas are mountainous regions with elevations of between 3,200 and 4,900 meters.

Many Cordyceps-harvesting countries have placed measures to try and curb the overexploitation of caterpillars with Cordyceps. For instance, China is a major producer of substrate-cultivated Cordyceps militaris.

Expensive Cordyceps sinensis
Cordyceps sinensis is a very desirable medicinal mushroom, but it costs over $20,000 per kilogram.

However, the jury is still out on whether such measures will lower the price of caterpillar Cordyceps, which currently sits at over $20,000 per kilo.

The caterpillar Cordyceps trade has been both a blessing and a curse for the rural communities that inhabit the mountainous alpine grasslands in Asia―where the fungi grow.

On the one hand, the lucrative trade has provided a much-needed income source for these remote communities.

On the other, the Cordyceps trade is a major source of conflicts over territorial claims.

For instance, in one Tibetan village, eight locals were found dead after a quarrel over-harvesting rights.

In 1993, Chinese tracker runner, Junxia Wang, broke several world records, including the 3000 meters men’s steeplechase.

His coach, Junren Ma, later credited caterpillar Cordyceps for Wang’s impressive performance, sparking international attention and demand.

Today, the fungus is highly exploited for its wide range of benefits such as increased energy, antioxidation, and respiratory support. As such, mycologists fear that the wild fungus might soon disappear.

Contrary to popular zombie lore, the Cordyceps fungi aren’t mind-controlling. They control their hosts, such as caterpillars, by interfering with their nervous system and taking over their muscles.

This is how the fungus gets the caterpillar to burrow itself a few inches beneath the ground surface with its head up. This position facilitates the eventual growth of the Cordyceps’ fruiting body.

The prevalence of caterpillars with Cordyceps in traditional medicine has led to the development of a lab-grown alternative with similar bioactive compounds, the first example being Cordyceps Cs-4.

This cultivated alternative is developed by growing pure Cordyceps mycelium in a liquid substrate.

Since then, a much bigger breakthrough was the development of being able to grow Cordyceps militaris mushrooms without the need for the host insect. This allows for commercial mushroom growers to vastly scale mushroom production to meet worldwide demand while alleviating the demand on the limited wild supply.

Cordyceps militaris - wild and cultivated
Cordyceps militaris is a more sustainable alternative to Cordyceps sinensis. It is just as supportive for health and can be cultivated at scale.

Cordyceps fungi infect caterpillars in the following way:

  1. Windborne Cordyceps spores land on a caterpillar’s body and take root in its muscles.
  2. The spores grow and take over the caterpillar’s muscles and then control it to move to a suitable location for reproduction — just below the surface of the soil.
  3. The fungus forces the caterpillar to stay there until it dies. After which, a stalked mushroom grows from the caterpillar’s head and produces spores for the next generation of caterpillars.
  1. Cordyceps Mushrooms: Supplement Types & Health Benefits
  2. How Traditional Chinese Medicine uses Cordyceps
  3. Cordyceps Sinensis vs Militaris: What’s the Best Cordyceps Supplement?
  4. Supplements for Lung Health: Cordyceps for Better Respiration
  5. Stimulant-Free Pre-Workout & Post-Workout Mushroom Supplements

1. Wang, S. M., Lee, L. J., Lin, W. W., & Chang, C. M. (1998). Effects of a water-soluble extract of Cordyceps sinensis on steroidogenesis and capsular morphology of lipid droplets in cultured rat adrenocortical cells. Journal of cellular biochemistry, 69(4), 483–489.

2. Paterson, 2008; Zhong et al., 2009; Lo et al., 2012; Yan et al., 2014



Real Mushrooms is driven by the desire to deliver the best possible medicinal mushrooms extracts in their purest form, without any carriers or grain fillers.

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Real Mushrooms

Real Mushrooms is driven by the desire to deliver the best possible medicinal mushrooms extracts in their purest form, without any carriers or grain fillers.